Why Teen Drivers Are Dwindling And What It Means

He serves as the chief judge at the world's most prestigious classic car show, the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. He's a widely respected automotive journalist and author, and he has a garage full of hot rods and other cool cars. But when it comes to his two teen children, "They haven't shown the slightest interest" in what's in that garage, Ken Gross laments.

Teenage rebellion? Perhaps, as teens often seem determined to resist their parents in just about every way imaginable, but one thing parent and child once always seemed to agree on was the importance of driving a car. Not anymore.

According to a recent study, nearly a third of American 19-year-olds haven't bothered to get their driver's licenses yet. Three decades ago, it was just one in eight who skipped that right of passage, according to Michael Sivak, of the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, or UMTRI. Among those 20 to 24, meanwhile, only 81 percent had gotten their licenses in 2010, down from 92 percent in 1983.

Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.

That may not necessarily be bad news for parents pacing the floor wondering where their kids are after curfew. But it's potentially disastrous for the auto industry. No, Millennials don't make up a large portion of the new car buying community – yet. But as a generation larger in number than the once sought-after Boomers, they were seen as the next big hope for carmakers after the downsized Gen-X.

With Boomers, the aging process yielded the best years the U.S. auto industry has ever had.

Instead, "They seem lukewarm, at best," about buying cars, laments Jim Lentz, Toyota's top U.S. executive, something that could translate into a much weaker market than many had hoped for, especially as Millennials age and increase their earning power. With Boomers, the aging process yielded the best years the U.S. auto industry has ever had – but it's very possible that scenario won't repeat itself, at least with Gen-Y.

"It's no longer a foregone conclusion that we will be able to sell cars to a large and emerging demographic," said Ford's President of the Americas Mark Fields, during an industry conference earlier this year.

Even those teens who do get licensed seem to be getting behind the wheel less often. An April study by the Frontier Group found that the average number of miles driven by those aged 16 to 34 dropped by 23 percent between 2001 and 2009 – to 7,900 miles annually. The national norm runs between 12,000 and 15,000 miles. Indeed, Gross says his son Jacob seems content with driving to school, football practice and then back home, rather than clocking as many miles as possible.

Why are young Americans losing their love affair with the automobile? There are any number of explanations. There's the economy, of course, which has even driven millions of older buyers out of the car market. Young buyers, in particular, are more likely to have to settle for higher interest – meaning costlier – subprime loans. Compounding matters, they're facing a market with higher unemployment and lower wages, and are leaving school saddled with massive loan debt.

Of course, that's all meaningless, anyway, for those who don't have a license and don't want one.

"We found that the percentage of young drivers was inversely related to the availability of the Internet."

The biggest reason behind this dwindling love affair might be a series of broad societal shifts. A recent analysis of census data found that for the first time since the launch of the Model T, America's urban population is growing faster than in the suburbs. Even Detroit, with its crumbling neighborhoods, has seen a revival in its downtown core.

Over that past century, the automobile has come to be seen as the ultimate American symbol of freedom, but "unlike previous years, there are many different ways that a Gen Y person can capture that freedom," contends Alexander Edwards, head of research at the California-based consulting firm Strategic Vision.

Have you ever tried to take a cellphone or iPad away from a teenager? For a large percentage of Millennials, texting has become the preferred form of communication, and "Virtual contact reduces the need for actual contact," suggests UMTRI's Sivak. "We found that the percentage of young drivers was inversely related to the availability of the Internet."

Some experts downplay recent trends. They suggest that as Millennials age they will return to traditional patterns. And, as they begin to raise families, the argument goes, they'll be forced to buy cars, love them or not.

Maybe, but historical precedent shows that buying patterns later in life are strongly influenced by what teenagers desire. Will a teen who puts a poster of a hot new cellphone on his wall lust for a Lamborghini or BMW later in life?

The uncomfortable reality may be that gone are the days when young Americans rushed to get their license.

Studies suggest many young buyers see automobiles as a pox upon the environment, but research also suggests Millennials at least warm up a little towards hybrids, electric vehicles and hydrogen cars.

"There's no silver bullet for Gen-Y," cautions Clay Dean, head of advanced design at General Motors. GM has been showing off two concepts aimed at Millennials in recent months: the Chevrolet Tru 140S and Chevy Code 130R. And Dean hints that they could provide the foundation for a low-priced model aimed at young buyers likely to reach market in the next several years.

Automakers are looking for other ways to connect with the digital generation. Chevrolet launched its marketing efforts for its new Sonic subcompact during the 2012 Super Bowl with an ad dubbed "kick flip,"featuring pro skateboarder Rob Dyrdek. Ford is investing heavily in Facebook and other social media efforts.

But the uncomfortable reality for automakers may be that gone are the days when young Americans rushed to get their license, worked long hours to afford a car and then spent the rest of their lives lusting after their next automobile.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 2 Years Ago
      Not really a surprise. When I was a Teen, the car was the primary socialization tool. Now it is social networks. Cars are just transportation.
      • 2 Years Ago
      A key fact overlooked by the article is the severe restrictions many states put on young drivers. Here in CA, a driver under 18 can't drive with anyone in the car outside of a legal adult (there are exceptions for going to and from school, but still). Add these restrictions and factor in the ubiquitous communications afforded by smart phones and it's pretty easy to see why they'd skip on a license and the hassle.
        • 2 Years Ago
        Its even worse here in New York. You can only get a learner's permit at 16 (i.e. You have to drive with a licensed adult , and I don't believe you can legally have more than one or two passengers, both have to be family members). In the NYC metro area, you can only drive a car with dual brakes, having this permit, although I've never heard of anyone getting ticketed for that. You can get a full license at 18, but merely having a junior drivers license without even being registered to my dad's car would make his yearly insurance costs go up by some $600. I like cars as much as the next gearhead, but owning in Brooklyn is a MASSIVE pain. Gas prices here run in the neighborhood of $4.25, and schools here don't have parking lots at all (none of them). Traffic is always plentiful, parking is ridiculously hard to find, and parking garages are about as difficult to afford is used on a regular basis. Most office buildings don't have parking lots. As a result, students, as well as the city's workforce commute on the subway. Most decent Northeastern colleges don't let freshmen have cars either. I'm only speaking for myself, as a seventeen year-old but I wouldn't say that the internet or money has as much to do with it as the fact that the well-developed mass transit in New York makes it so easy to do without, and the overall lack of accessibility for cars. When I was younger, I couldn't wait for the day I turned 18 to get my license, but now, I realize that I'm probably not going to own a car until I'm well into my twenties and have a family.
          • 2 Years Ago
          Also, I am not quite sure why cars as a general interest among the youth seems to have to disappeared. At least the youth that I grew up with. By my last few elementary school years I could name just about any car I saw on the street. When I was younger I accepted that I was somewhat young for that interest, but as I approach driving age, most of my classmates still isolate me as the "weirdly obsessed car guy". At best, there might be some rich kid who adores his dad's Audi A6, or a Jersey Shore castmember lookalike who has an interest in exotics solely for the purpose of picking up girls or flaunting his wealth, largely to achieve the same end. I have yet to meet anyone who likes any older cars besides usual assortment of late-'60s muscle cars and early 20th century antiques.
          • 2 Years Ago
          ...not quite sure why, but cars as a general interest ...
      • 2 Years Ago
      I don't think the reason of the cost of driving was touched upon enough. I can tell you as a teenager, who just graduated high school, it's outrageously expensive to be insured alone. Factor in the cost of a car and the gas on top of that, you'd have to use all your money from a part time job just to have a crappy car. Not worth it for many kids, so unless you have parents that are willing to help out, it's just not worth it anymore.
      • 2 Years Ago
      She's back, folks. The crazed teenage girl behind the wheel of a convertible stock photo.
      • 2 Years Ago
      I think a lot is being missed here. There are several issues in play here. #1 We have a generation of kids that grew up in Minivans and Camrys. These cars are not what would endear the automobile to a kid growing up. Most people who are into cars today are baby boomers that grew up in a fun time for cars when they were not appliances. #2 Majority of the kids do not live where they can get by without a car. In The vast areas between LA and NY there are only pockets where you can live without a car. #3 Cars are expensive even the boring cheap ones. Insurance is not cheap. It is hard for a kid to have a nice car today. When I learned to drive I could buy a Chevelle SS for $2000 that in the same condition today would cost a kid $20,000 and then he could not afford the gas for it. #4 Technology today is the new cool. With an I pad or I phone a kid can do nearly everything they did with a car and never leave home. It is the social center, entertainment and shopping all in one. #5 High expectations of many kids today that if they don't get the M3 for a first car I don't want one. The MTV greed of I have to have it all and not work for it has taken hold of many kids today. Too many want to get out of collage and have it all right now. My parents had to work for it and I am still working for it. Finally to get into a car hobby is hard for many adults and for kid it is damn near impossible. The fact is even the kids that build a little Honda up often is turned away or shunned by the traditional car hobbiest. While you may not like their taste they want to be part of the hobby and the fact is they can't afford $30K for a 396 SS RS Camaro. Add to this the brainwashing of some eviro types that like to demonize the automobile and make them feel it is a sin to own a car even if it gets good MPG, it has turned kids off. I see it with my own son and just recently his Teacher proclaimed for better or worse he is a tree hugger. My teacher in the same school was a car collector of Packards and Avanti. It is a different time and different culture. We will just have to adjust as we each have our ways. It is what it is and there will always be auto enthusiast but I am affraid our group will be smaller and older.
        • 2 Years Ago
        One more thing: I think there is a disconnect between the car and the person. It is very hard, near impossible for me to repair my own car. I had an alternator go out, and it took a skilled mechanic 4 hours to replace. He had to take off most of the front end of the car just to get at it. To my 18 year old son, there was no learning that I could extend to him. It is too easy for him to just mod a car in a video game.
      Melinda Matturro
      • 2 Years Ago
      it's ******* expensive, that's why.
      Chief Big Dick
      • 2 Years Ago
      The real problem here is no job to drive the car to is the first thing. And now the parents can"t afford to buy one for thier kids because lack of income and on top off that it cost a ton of money annually just to have a teenager live under your roof with a drivers license because of INSURANCE REASONS! America is just tired of getting screwed!
      • 2 Years Ago
      Parents can't afford insurance - the kids can't find jobs - no one can afford the gas - and if you live in or near a big city public transportation is a lot easier and cheaper.
      Hi Gram, Ty&Dill
      • 2 Years Ago
      Between no jobs, outrageous gas prices& climbing insurance rates how are kids supposted to have cars? Heck, most adults can't afford them anymore.
        Ed Ferreira
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Hi Gram, Ty&Dill
        U hit the nail on the head kid's can't afford them and parent's can't afford to help them like are parent's did
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Hi Gram, Ty&Dill
        Exactly ... and there you have it. Maybe Romney can change it.
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Hi Gram, Ty&Dill
        Good for you! If this was true were do all the girls get Preg now? They still do is it in the Dorm?
      • 2 Years Ago
      Im 32 but see and talk to a lot of young adults (17,18,19, 20...) given my profession. Way way more issues with money and no place to find a job that will pay enough to make it worth while investing the massive amount of hours to fund high priced insurance, gas, and even used car prices. There is a growing sense of hopelessness in the young people I see. Maybe its the fact that the retirement age people dont want to retire and keep the jobs, and the young people have to look forward to a future where they payoff there parents debts at a society level.
        • 2 Years Ago
        Thank you for acknowledging this trend. I really mean this too. So many are blind to the facts of what our economy is really doing. As a person in there young/mid 20's all I see is financial trouble on the horizon (Not negative just realistic). 'Wasting" money on a car isn't something everyone can do. My passion for cars and a work ethic won't let me not have one BUT it is easy to see why it is the first thing to go for many. The old moto "pay your dues" is quickly becoming falsified because of a disproportionate amount of people still left in the work force. It is more important now (than ever) for younger people to find a city where there may be multiple jobs. The reason: multiple job may be required to progress monetarily because companies are becoming more reluctant to change their work environment (hiring, firing, promoting, etc). All that results in is...city living, other expenses, and new priorities; leaving little room for a car.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Let's see I got my license in 1994. Gas was 97 cents to 1.08 then. The economy was good and more people could afford to help their kids get licenses and cars. fast forward to the hell we live in now. Nearly 4 bucks a gallon, used cars prices are higher, I am sure Driving School has gone up, m ore paents are unemployed, I mean really I do not think it has to do with teens not wanting a license my God getting out of the house and that freedom is priceless. It's just are economy is a toilet and more people are poor and living paycheck to paycheck.
        • 2 Years Ago
        Actually back in those days we didn't need to go to any 'driving school' because we had driver's ed and driver's training right there at our high school. Nowadays thanks to the crazed budget cuttters, we no longer have those in our schools. And sadly autoshop and metal/ welding classes were cut along with it too.
          • 2 Years Ago
          You are so right, I remember drivers ed in HS. They actually had an option to learn stick at my school and I would not have learned otherwise. I was class of 97
      • 2 Years Ago
      Willing to bet it's because it's TOO expensive to drive. With gas approaching $4 a gallon again, auto insurance costs are skyrocketing, repairs at the mechanic - those are going up in price too... let's not even go there in how much it costs to register your car in some locales. Teen's CAN'T AFFORD this rite of passage anymore.
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